Sequester: Stupid, But Not So Bad?

Matt Yglesias is right: as recently as a few months ago the prevailing attitude among progressives is that sequestration, in the very unlikely event it happened, would be worse for the priorities of the Right than of the Left, since (a) it would hit defense spending pretty hard at a time when the most prominent Republicans (notably 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney) were calling for more money for the Pentagon, and (b) the most important progressive priorities, Social Security, Medicare benefits, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and basic unemployment benefits, were placed off-limits.

Matt thinks we should still feel that way, and is pushing back against the “just repeal it” line that Paul articulated in the last post.

Sequestration is cuts liberals can live with but conservatives can’t, which should bring conservatives to the table to discuss a more balanced approach even though conservatives are more favorably disposed to cuts in the abstract. But Democrats seem reluctant to actually articulate the point that most defense spending is useless from the standpoint of national defense, so they’ve pivoted their spin to the idea that the sequester cuts will cause the public such intolerable pain as to force the GOP back to the table. The original spin, however, strikes me as much more plausible than the new spin.

Matt acknowledges that this sunnier (or at least partly-cloudier) attitude doesn’t take into account the macroeconomic impact of spending cuts, which is why he limits his positive feelings about sequestration to “a cheer or two.” But I would demur at least in part to his suggestion that the sequester’s defense cuts are unambiguously a fine thing (aside from the negative economic impact of immediate cuts) from the point of view of any Democrat who’s not afraid of being called “weak on defense.” Yes, a significantly smaller defense budget is consistent with actual national security needs and is essential for long-term fiscal discipline. But the sequester does not demand, invite or even allow the kind of reconsideration of national security priorities–a strategy for dealing with concrete interests and threats and recalibrating the roles and missions that must be performed to implement it–we most need a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War. It’s hammer-headed by design. Progressive cheers over lower defense spending as an abstract proposition make no more sense than conservative cheers over lower domestic spending as an abstract proposition.

Now it’s true that the sudden willingness of most Republicans to accept lower levels of defense spending could produce the kind of debate we need in order for this strategic reconsideration of national security to occur. But that’s well down the road, and it’s just as likely that sequestration will give a fresh impetus to those on the Right calling for a more aggressive national security posture on grounds that we can’t afford “containment” of alleged security threats. So it’s not that clear the furloughing of DoD civilian employees, the disruption of supply cycles, or reductions in the gross value of defense contracts, is going to be some sort of blow for peace. Progressives do, as Matt suggests, need to articulate why we think defense spending is too high. The country is ready for that case to be made. But going along with the fiction that all defense spending is the same isn’t the way to do it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.